Growing female inmate population a troubling trend

The Orange County RegisterJuly 14, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Orange County Register on Thursday, July 10:

Americans, on the whole, are content to support a very large prison population. Although the number of incarcerated citizens is actually falling, one troubling trend more than offsets that superficially good news. There are more women in American prisons and jails than ever before.

In just three decades, the number of women behind bars has gone up more than eightfold. That has spurred calls for a new effort to meet the special needs of female prisoners. Some attention has also been focused on the role of the drug war in sending so many women to jail.

Relatively less of an emphasis has been placed on the cultural consequences of the problem. And a problem it certainly is.

Take its impact on the family. The debate is ongoing as to how tight, and how meaningful, is the relationship between single-parent families and crime. But it is beyond dispute that most inmates grew up in fatherless homes. Policymakers must confront the challenge of civic order in areas where not only fathers, but mothers, spend time "in the system."

The difficulty is not restricted to the ordeal children endure if their mothers are incarcerated. Single or married, with or without children, women drawn into the prison system will likely be affected in ways similar to men. That is, when they are done doing time, they will bring a part of prison culture with them - back into a society that is still far too inhospitable to ex-convicts hoping to reintegrate into families, neighborhoods and the workforce.

Prison culture is not simply a matter of recidivism, although the latest numbers released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics underscore how staggering recidivism rates have become. It also involves a level of cynicism, aggressiveness and hopelessness that can make the difference between communities on the edge and communities in ruin.

Whatever we make of the culture-war disagreements over how "nurturing" women are or should be, we ought to agree that high male incarceration rates make the cultural competence of women essential to the success of children in high-crime parts of the country - whatever the prevailing race or ethnicity.

Sadly, going to prison has become almost a cultural death sentence in America. Some inmates re-emerge with a new dedication to the kinds of values that strengthen communities. More often, those values are abandoned amid the hostility, survivalism and disillusionment that prison life beats into the psyche.

We've seen the profound social damage done when so many American men become trapped in the revolving door of the prison-industrial complex. By any measure, drawing more women into the same trap will bring fresh, enduring miseries.

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